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Russia May Profit from Private Energy Dispute

Russia's latest struggle over control of a private energy company appears linked to state politics and differing views among foreign and domestic investors about profits and risk. At stake is the leadership and direction of the British-Russian energy company TNK-BP. VOA Moscow Correspondent Peter Fedynsky reports the winner could be Russia's state-owned energy giant Gazprom.

Exactly 50 percent of TNK-BP is owned by Britain's BP oil company. The other half is controlled by three Russian billionaires, Viktor Vekselberg, Mikhail Fridman and Len Blavatnik, owners of the Alfa-Access-Renova consortium. They are demanding the resignation of TNK-BP chairman Robert Dudley, accusing him of favoring shareholders on the British side of the company. Russian investors are also at odds over company development strategy.

Natalia Milchakova, energy analyst with Russia's Otkrytia Investment Corporation, told VOA that ironically, the British side wants to focus on projects in Russia, but Russian investors prefer development abroad, first of all in Central Asia.

Milchakova says TNK-BP has excellent opportunities to increase production in Russia, which also has good processing capacity. The analyst adds that Russian investors want to tackle riskier projects. She also asks why, if reasonable profits can be made in Russia without inordinate risk.

Another observer, Yegeniy Volk, manager of Moscow's Heritage Foundation think tank, says the British and Russian attitudes toward profit and risk reflect two different business traditions.

Volk says Russians are interested in a quick profit and give little thought to strategic considerations, which -- he notes -- explains recent energy production declines in Russia. Western business, according to Volk, is more civilized and oriented toward future strategic concerns. Russian business, he says has little faith in the country's investment climate because there have been too many changes and redistributions, so the desire for short term profit often prevails over other considerations, such as infrastructure investment.

The TNK-BP dispute comes amid increasing pressure in recent months from the Russian government. In March, the Federal Security Service, or FSB, raided the company's Moscow headquarters and accused one of its employees of industrial espionage. The company's foreign employees have also had problems getting Russian visas.

In an interview published Saturday in the French newspaper Le Monde, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin says he warned five years ago against TNK-BP's 50-50 ownership arrangement, noting that problems would emerge in the absence of clearly defined authority.

Konstantin Simonov, general director of Russia's National Energy Security Foundation, says the company's leadership drift is making the Kremlin nervous, because production and profits could suffer. Simonov is one of many analysts who say TNK-BP's problems make it a prime target for a government takeover.

Simonov says Mr. Putin's logic is clear, noting the prime minister can see that nobody is in charge of the company and its affairs are a mess. The analyst says Mr. Putin can also see the infighting among investors and a new story appearing everyday, which makes it imperative that a leader emerge quickly. Simonov says that leader could well be one of Russia's state owned energy companies.

The likely candidate is energy giant Gazprom, which dismantled Russia's largest private oil company, Yukos, and also seized control of the Sakhalin-2 gas project from Royal Dutch Shell. And last year, the Kremlin pressured British Petroleum to give up its stake in Siberia's Kovykta field, one of the world's largest gas deposits.

TNK-BP has nine billion barrels of proven reserves and accounts for about 16 percent of Russia's entire oil output.